Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rarotonga, Cook Islands

October 25, 2012
GPS Position: 21°12.2940' S 159°47.0923' W
Avatiu Harbor, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

We've been enjoying the Cook Islands since the minute we sailed into the Aitutaki lagoon. Meeting local NZ expats Ingrid and Greg on Aitutaki was a great springboard for getting to know Aitutaki and making lots of connections. We've joined the local fishing club and sailing club and it looks like Kathy will be coaching a kids soccer team soon. I've been asked to help out at the sailing club and this was just in a weeks time or so. After a few days on Aitutaki we started to wonder if we can work out staying for the cyclone season. The whole idea posed all sorts of logistical problems not the least a major immigration hurdle. We started the conversation with the Port Captain about the feasibility of lifting LightSpeed out of the water and inquired with a local masonry supplier about loading the boat onto his large trailer that he pulls with a farm tractor. The final element of where to park the boat still remains unresolved, but we have a few options. The boat needs to be far enough from the sea to be out of harms way if there is a major storm surge, yet hauling the 23' wide boat on the tiny local roads is problematic due to encroaching building, trees and power poles, so it needs to be pretty close to the wharf. After the considerable feasibility study that suggested we'd be able to haul the boat for the worst months of cyclone season we decided to go ahead with the visa extension application process. This part was a bit scary as we needed to mail our passports from Aitutaki to Rarotonga and then hope we'd be approved pretty quickly. You see, cyclone season officially starts in just five days and without permission to stay we'd really need to make a run for New Zealand and soon!

When the weather looked good for a sail to Rarotonga about 140nm to the south we jumped on the chance to check in with immigration and see if we were approved. Thankfully, we got the maximum possible visa extension so the decision was finalized and we're staying in the Cooks for cyclone season. Even with our haul out plan we are still pretty nervous about cyclones and once the boat is out of the water we'll be securing it to the ground so it can't be blown away. The goal is to have a nice view location from land where we'll be able to live aboard the boat and look out over the sparkling blue lagoon. We're also looking into renting a house so we could enjoy other amenities such as real showers and laundry facilities.

Aitutaki is small geographically and the shrinking population is now numbered around 1500, it is a very very remote place and in our minds the near perfect place for a cyclone season adventure. While we've been in Rarotonga we've been making lots of new friends and getting a better feel for the workings of the country. We had a great Friday night hanging out at the Rarotonga fishing club and are making new friends at every turn.

We've only had one bad experience in over five weeks, it has to do with anchoring in the beautiful lagoon on the East side of Rarotonga. We sailed over to the lagoon and being courteous well seasoned travelers we called a local fishing boat on the VHF radio and asked permission to use the harbor BEFORE pulling in and dropping the anchor. As it turns out the person we asked for permission was Captain Moko and apparently he is in charge of the lagoon and based on our conversation was having a bad day. Captain Moko was not so nice about telling us NO we could not use the lagoon because some other cruiser didn't pay the anchoring fee so now NO boats could use the lagoon. I could understand the frustration of not getting payed the fee, so I offered to pay the fee in advance and in cash. Surprisingly, this was not acceptable and I was told permission would NOT be granted. This was a big disappointment given there are zero other options for anchoring and we'd have to tie up at the commercial port. As visitors not familiar with local politics I didn't wanting to force the issue, so we sailed over to the commercial harbor to tie to the wharf.

The Rarotonga commercial port has recently been upgraded and looks great for huge commercial ship and has a new basin for local fishing boats. Yacht are med moored to the wharf and while we appreciate that yachts are welcome to share the harbor, serious ocean surge enters the harbor from the North and things can get extremely uncomfortable tossing tiny yachts around like a toy boats. As can be expected in a busy shipping port there is plenty of noise and dust from trucks hauling containers and little in the way of services for yachts such as water to wash off the grime. Don't get me wrong we are happy to be tied up, as our only other option is to not stop at Rarotonga at all.

As wind and seas are building from the North East it's starting to get downright dangerous as 2 meters seas toss the yacht in the harbor. Getting off the boat requires getting into the dinghy and then climbing from the dinghy onto a ladder on the face of the tall concrete wharf. It's a bit of challenge in calm conditions as one government official can attest as he fell in the water while attempting to board a yacht for inspection... on a calm day. With the current 1-2 meter seas any slip or slight hesitation could result in a serious injury.

We've approached the friendly harbor master Andre about championing our cause to gain permission to use the nice lagoon, but to no avail as of yet. It's so rough in the commercial port this morning that Kathy is feeling sea sick So, despite wanting to spend more time and money enjoying Rarotonga we're stuck on the boat with conditions too severe outside the harbor to leave and too rough inside the harbor to safely get on and off the boat. Locals tell us we should be permitted to use the lagoon and we are trying to figure out how to approach Captain Moko in such a way that he can save face and not get further entrenched in his previous policy of NO.

I hope I can soon revise this post with good news as the current policy might discourage more and more yachts form visiting Rarotonga. This is too bad as 99.99% of yacht crews are respectful, friendly and willing to pay a reasonable anchoring fee and would undoubtedly patronize Captain Moko's very own lagoon side restaurant. It's not our intention to dwell on the negative, but this is a big issue for visiting yachts.

Rarotonga is amazingly beautiful with tons of great hikes, good shopping and friendly locals. A visit to the Saturday market is not to be missed with lots of crafts, fresh vegetables, fresh sourdough bread and even a free dance performance. Motorbikes are around $20 a day and the 36km drive around the island is great fun with the wind in your face. Rarotonga is a great place to visit by plane.

That's it for now.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Overnight sail to Rarotonga

October 17, 2012
Underway position @ 7AM local: 20°54.5' S 159°45.0' W
Sailing from Aitutaki to Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Yesterday, we downloaded the latest weather GRIB and found perfect conditions to make the 140nm sail due South to Rarotonga. We'd been wanting to get our Aitutaki friend Greg out for a 'real' sail aboard LightSpeed. After a few fishing / sailing excursions with Greg and Ingrid around Aitutaki, Greg was keen for a overnight sail. You see, Greg now has 'cat fever' and is keen to purchase a catamaran next year, thus he's wisely getting as much sailing experience as possible. So around 9AM we dropped our mooring lines to pull out of the Aituraki boat basin and headed out the pass. The pass to Aitutaki is pretty narrow and long and shoal, but in reality every boat with a draft of 5'6' has made it in and out with little incident. Even a Lagoon 50' with a 28' beam and 5' draft made it in and out, albeit briefly touching some sand on the way out. Outside the lagoon it's also possible to anchor or pick up a single mooring and several visiting boats with 6' or more draft has stayed outside in the protection of the lee.

Aitutaki is great fun with cheap motorbike rentals ($25 the first day and $20 each day thereafter) to explore the islands, many small casual restaurants, a super laid back island time attitude, hump back whales just outside the pass, amazing fly fishing and several motus surrounded by the the most striking combination of blue lagoon waters. Aitutaki is definitely worth a stop.

Last weekend Kathy, Ingrid, Greg and I were out sailing 14' Lasers in the sparkling warm waters of the Aitutaki lagoon. In the next few weeks we hope to get in a few more practice sessions on the Lasers and then possibly compete in a upcoming Laser regatta.

At the moment we are about 20nm out of Rarotonga and just enjoyed a spectacular pre-dawn and sunrise. Fishing lines are in the water and we're hoping to break our long streak of uninterrupted fishing with some catching. Our interpretation of the GRIB files was fairly accurate and we enjoyed a great sail close hauled in the light head winds and 1.5 meter SE swell. At the moment we are motor sailing the final miles as the wind has gone light. Looking forward to some shopping in Rarotonga where we'll be looking for cheaper prices than those on Aitutaki.

That's it for now.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Aitutaki Inner Harbor

Panoramic view of Aitutaki Wharf.
 Johnathn aboard s/v Messalina enjoys solitude in the Aitutaki inner Yacht Basin

NOAA WaveWatch III (WW3) a great tool for ensuring comfortable ocean passages.

NOAA WaveWatch III (WW3) is a great tool for ensuring comfortable ocean passages.  

Voyage planning aboard our sailing catamaran LightSpeed always involves a thorough analysis of the expected sea state.  We know from plenty of 45,000nm on the water that the wrong waves can cause significant discomfort and make an ocean passage miserable.  Many cruisers simply look only at a GFS GRIB wind forecast for insight on ocean conditions using simple tools like  We find it additionally important to look at GFS and WW3 wave models to evaluate impacts of  waves propagating from far off storms.

We learned our lesson the hard way several times, but most memorably on a passage from Fiji to Vauatu in 2007.  We sailed form Fiji after a brief look at the GFS GRIB wind model which indicated 20-25 knots ESE, a decent forecast for a quick sail.   However, one look at a WW3 wave model might have saved us from 2 very scarry wave induced knock downs over 4 days.  We're talking huge breaking waves 1 in 1000 waves combining from multiple directions.  The sort of waves threatened to wash the watch person overboard, filled the cockpit brimming full, sent tens of gallons below decks soaking everything, induced a jibe and stripped several jerry jugs from lashings on the rail.  All the result of fairly easy to interpret WW3 wave data from 2 distant storms in the Southern Ocean, if only we looked!  Storms cranking out big swells from both the SW, SE and combining with local reinforced 25 knot trade wind waves created havoc aboard our 40' monhull s/v 'a Vie'.  The first day out of Fiji, I vividly remember fighting to hold down some mac and cheese, my ultimate sea sick quelling fare.  Kathy was struggling with the confused sea motion and mountainous waves as she repeatedly puked in the galley sink for the first 36 hours of the voyage. 

Armed with a bit of easily obtained WW3 wave information, those sailing trade wind routes can easily avoid ugly uncomfortable passages like ours to Vanuatu.   We'll define some terms, suggest visualize tools and share some of our rules of thumb to ensure a comfortable passage.

A side note to the Catamaran vs Monohull debate:  Having crossed the Pacific in a 40' monohull, I'd suggest that wave direction and period is more important for comfort aboard the 42' catamaran we now sail.   None the less the catamaran is way more comfortable overall.

Key Terms:

HeighT SiGnificant Wave (HTSGW)  measured in meters is defined as mean wave height of the highest third of the waves.  
  • 1 in 10 waves will be 10% larger.
  • 1 in 100 will be 1.5 times the median.
  • 1 in 1000 will be nearly twice as large
  • We look for HTSGW to be 2 meters or less and find over 3 meters things get significantly less comfortable.
WaVe PERiod (WVPER) the average period in seconds between crests. 
  • At 10 seconds that's 8640 waves per 24 hours and 8 of these will be TWICE the average height.
WaVe DIRection (WVDIR) the direction from which the waves are originating.

Visualization Tools
ViewFax found at although not perfect is what we use to obtain and visualize NOAA WW3 wave information.  Given limited internet access we primarily use Airmail's built in 'ViewFax' and our SSB to download small 10KB snippets of ocean conditions.   However, 'ViewFax' does a poor job of visualizing the wave period (WVPER) so we take the WW3 data  and load it into MaxSea to evaluate the wave period, direction and height.   Perhaps, there's a better tool someone could recommend? 

Here's a screen shot of the ViewFax WW3 request window.

Rules of Thumb:
Wave Direction (WVDIR) abaft the beam and preferably dead astern.

Wave Period (WVPER)
  •  Always greater than 9 seconds and preferably well over 10 seconds.
  •  Never 'Square' (period in seconds less than or equal to the wave height in feet = BAD).  Note: 1 Meter = 3.28084 Feet. 
Height Significant Wave (HTSGW)

  • Never more than 3.6 meters if at all possible.
  • Much less if forward of the beam and highly dependent on period.
Fair winds and Following Seas

Whenever possible we look not only at the Primary wave data, but dig into the Secondary wave properties.  We have yet to find a good tool to visualize combined data from both the Primary and Secondary waves.  The sort of tool that would have prevented us from getting our butts kicked in 2006.  For a macro understanding take a look at this animated 180 hour prediction provided by the NOAA WW3 data.  You can toggle for wind, primary and secondary, period and height.

Screen snip of Primary Wave Period  for the Pacific Ocean.

Fair winds and Following Seas

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Jumping for Joy in Aitutaki

Random Aitutaki photos

Aitutaki Wharf and yacht basin.
 Kathy on the scooter which is the best way to see the Island.  This one we rented from Rino's for $20NZD a day.
 Our friendly fly catcher who is somewhere on the boat?
 Painted sky under spinnaker.
 Sunrise over Aitutaki, Cook Islands.
 Shell ready at the jib sheet
Aitutaki reef pass is one of the toughest in the South Pacific.  Due to continuous shoaling we've yet to see a boat with more than 5' draft successfully enter the lagoon.  Even those with 4-5' drafts 'touched' at least once.  One with 5-6" draft tried to enter, but repeatedly grounded and finally gave up and picked up a mooring outside the reef.

Aitutaki Game Fishing Club IFGA Comp

Dave and Kathy at the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club adjacent to the wharf.  Our timing was lucky as we joined in on two days of fishing and great dinner parties at the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club.  It cost $25 to join the club for a year and $2 to enter the 'Fishing Comp' not fishing competition, but 'Fishing Comp'.  ONe day we fished with Greg aboard 'Island Time' and on Saturday we fished off s/v LightSpeed.

 Dave ang Greg at the Club.

 Fishing from LightSpeed
 Ingrid and Greg getting a feel for catamaran sailing.

Girls take a nap on the trampoline while Greg steers with his toes.

Wrangling goats Aitutaki

 Catching a 'kid'.
Dave wrangles a goat near the school on Aitutaki.

Aitutaki Raft up

 Small Yacht basin adjacent to the Aitutaki wharf is getting pretty full with six boats.   Maybe 10 boats would fit if rafted together,  more than that and boat ramp would be blocked.
Hanging out with Joe (s/v Shackles), Al (s/v Magic), Sam (crew of s/v Shakles) and Jonathan (s/v Messalina) aboard s/v LightSpeed in the Aitutaki Lagoon Cook Islands.

Aitutaki Sunset

Local family enjoys the end to another beautiful day on Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Another great day in Aitutaki.

October 3, 2012
Aitutaki, Cook Islands

 Kathy on the bow of Greg and Ingrid's "Island Time' as we race across the Aitutaki Lagoon, Cook Islands.
 Hanging out on a lagoon motu Aitutaki, Cook Islands with friends.
 Ingrid and Greg our amazing island hosts sailing on LightSpeed outside the lagoon Aitutaki, Cook Islands.
Greg's 'Island Time' fishing boat the perfect platform for Bone fish in the lagoon and for Tuna outside.

Landing a 5KG tuna near the Fish Aggregating Device (FAD) on the SW corner of Aitutaki.